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Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Rumor, fear and innuendo fuel tensions

LOS ANGELES -- Anyone who knows anything about China knows that it's not just its current government but its people, too, who are ultraprotective and ultra-sensitive about the Taiwan issue.

They'd fight -- you can bet on it -- to keep alive the hope of union with that feisty offshore island that maintains its wary distance from the mainland.

So, when a sensational story broke recently that the United States had plans for a massive show of naval power in the Chinese seas, it was a true blockbuster, perhaps a portent of world war.

After all, wars can start over serious mutual misperceptions. In 1996, the mainland executed an ill-advised measure of gunboat and missile diplomacy in an effort to intimidate the island's voters from electing Chen Shui-bian president. The most prominent platform plank of Chen's party was formal independence from the mainland.

In response, a pair of U.S. aircraft carrier groups were sent close to China to help calm the roiling political waters. But they did not actually stick their noses into the 190-km-wide strait that separates the mainland from Taiwan.

They held back after then-U.S. Ambassador to China James Sasser in Beijing, greatly alarmed, urgently telephoned President Bill Clinton to warn that the Pentagon's running a carrier group through the Taiwan Strait might well trigger a Chinese military response.

In the end, the carrier groups wisely steered away from strait waters, China quieted down. A few years later, Chen was elected anyway, and in the meantime, China-U.S. relations improved.

Last week, though, it was starting to look like 1996 all over again. Rumors began to circulate about a mammoth U.S. military exercise off Taiwan, Operation Summer Pulse '04. It would involve seven carrier groups, more than half of the U.S. carrier fleet. In effect, U.S. naval forces would be shaking an enormous stick in Beijing's face, ostensibly to warn of the folly of even considering military action over Taiwan.

The sensational story apparently was first listed as fact on a Chinese-language Web site, then published in at least two newspapers in Asia and two in the United States, including the ordinarily cautious Los Angeles Times. The accounts spawned a predictable firestorm in Asia about America's new "gunboat diplomacy" in various Internet blogs and Web pages.

China insists on ultimate sovereignty over Taiwan and argues that any Western encouragement of Taiwan separatism would undermine regional stability and delay a peaceful solution of the issue. Indeed, this "one China" policy has been accepted by the United Nations (as well as the U.S. and most of the world).

Beijing has a point. And so given this reality, the proper task of modern global diplomacy is to discourage China from ever attempting to establish sovereignty by force and to deter Taiwan from acting publicly in a way that could convince the mainland that the military option is its only hope of ever realizing unification.

China's military overlord Jiang Zemin recently said unification needs to be accomplished by 2020, which, by my reading, means that Beijing is not exactly saying by tomorrow.

As it turns out, the seven-carriers-to-China story was not only inflammatory, it was also false. In fact, since the USS Ronald Reagan returned to port in San Diego on Friday, only two carriers are sailing in Pacific waters: the USS Kitty Hawk and the USS John C. Stennis, according to Capt. John Singley, top spokesman for the U.S. Pacific Command in Hawaii.

The false story, whipped into a frenzy, upset many in the U.S. military perhaps as much as the Chinese.

For one thing, the Pacific Command has been working industriously since the scary 1996 cross-strait stare-down to get to know its Chinese counterparts and develop a measure of mutual trust. Then-Pacific Commander Joseph Prueher, now retired, personally visited China for useful sessions with Chinese counterparts. His successors continued that policy, although the frequency of contact has been foolishly cut back by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Second, rumors of a massive U.S. military buildup (for which America does have the capability) only play into the hands of China's hawks in the Peoples Liberation Army, who beg Beijing for more money for more arms, which plays into the hands of Taiwan's hawks (same reason), which plays into the hands of anti-China circles in the U.S. that want more funding for more weapons -- all of which delights U.S. arms merchants.

It is through this kind of whirlwind of rumor, fear and innuendo that the vile atmosphere of a vicious, costly and unneeded arms race in Asia is spawned.

In international relations and public diplomacy, the news media play a critical role. They can prudently raise intelligent questions or rashly raise international temperatures. They can carefully report the news or puff up a tidbit of sensationalism.

The press owes it to world peace to behave more responsibly and not take its cues from sensational cyberspace sources. War -- or potential war -- is serious business, as Iraq today reminds us.

UCLA professor Tom Plate, a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy, is founder of the Asia Pacific Media Network. Copyright 2004 Tom Plate

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